It's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and St. Louisans far and wide are huddled in front of their television sets to catch legendary KMOV anchor Julius Hunter's final broadcast.
For more than two decades, Hunter has been the area's black Cronkite, a consistent presence in a city that values familiarity over virtually all other qualities.
But at the Black Thorn Pub on South Wyoming Street on this night -- just as old Julius is signing off once and for all -- all eyes are on the two stunning young ladies squaring off at the air-hockey table, courageously putting their well-manicured fingernails in the way of a speeding wind-aided faux puck.
It is doubtful that more than a handful of the mostly twentysomething hipster patrons really care about Hunter or know that tonight is his last broadcast. But judging from some starstruck looks -- particularly the wanton expressions of the men -- odds are, more than a few of them recognize the smoldering betties at the air-hockey table, better known to area channel-surfers as WB11 (KPLR, Channel 11) anchors Kathryn Jamboretz and Melanie Moon.
Together, thirtysomethings Moon and Jamboretz represent the only all-female A-team anchor desk in St. Louis evening news. And not by accident -- KPLR is hellbent on having its 9 p.m. newscast be a hipped-up, lifestyle-oriented extension of its parent network's prime-time programming, which is squarely aimed at 18- to 34-year-old women.
"The best way to maintain ratings is to maintain the audience who's watching at 8:58 [p.m.]," says KPLR general manager Bill Lanesey.
And, as Jamboretz notes: "Women like watching other women."
There's little doubt that KPLR -- which nudges out its lone 9 p.m. rival, Fox2 (KTVI, Channel 2), for the top spot among 18- to 34-year-old women Monday-Friday -- is accomplishing Lanesey's objective. Similarly, hardly anyone denies that KPLR's girl-power anchor team deserves much of the credit for the station's success among this niche demographic.
What's debatable, however, is whether this strategy is too narrow in focus to be credible from either a business or journalistic standpoint. And what's curious is that of the twenty WB affiliates nationwide that air regular nightly newscasts -- stations with the same lead-in programming as KPLR -- few, if any, have adopted Channel 11's all-or-nothing pursuit of the young-adult viewer, a long-revered demographic whose actual value has been called into question of late by prominent media analysts.
Webster University journalism professor Art Silverblatt -- swift on the heels of an October 13 New York Times Magazine article that took a blowtorch to the common belief that the 18-to-34 category is the most desirable demographic -- questions whether advertisers should even bother buying spots on a newscast as niche-driven as WB11's.
"It is really a misdirection," Silverblatt says. "Who are they going after, and why? People who are between 35 and retirement are at the prime of their purchase power. They're definitely users of the media, and they've essentially been cremated. I can understand that [targeting younger consumers] in terms of some brands, but everybody uses shampoo."
After a defensive grudge match at the air-hockey table -- where Jamboretz prevails 4-2 before getting timed out by the machine (standard duels are played to 7) -- the ladies move on to the Ms. Pac-Man machine. Moon demurs, but Jamboretz -- who admits to having become "addicted" to the game as a young lass growing up in Webster Groves -- kicks ass. In fact, she's such a deft joystick jockey that one wonders whether she could torture the rival Pac-monsters that chase her li'l miss around the screen blindfolded.
While Jamboretz rips up the screen, Moon -- who says she didn't touch a drop of booze until her mid-twenties, nurses a Diet Coke and resists the cell-phone pleas of KPLR reporter Jennifer Haynes to join her at a riverboat casino for a night of blackjack and amaretto sours.
One senses that gambling till the sun comes up on a school night isn't the standard speed of this blond, petite, über-religious daughter of a Baptist minister, a graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Jamboretz is a different story: The University of Colorado alum and sorority sister is bitter as all hell that she's under doctor's orders to take a month off from drinking, in the heart of the holiday season, after undergoing an emergency appendectomy the week before.
"I'm a drinker, and so is my family," says Jamboretz, as she speeds toward KPLR's Maryland Heights studio in a silver BMW with Mary Jay Blige on the stereo. The daughter of a prominent local ad man, she reveals with mischievous pride that the germ of her party-girl modus operandi was a jam-packed Golden Child-style high-school bender at her vacationing folks' house that had to be broken up by her grandparents.
Short, perky, quick-witted and blessed with refreshingly slammin' curves that belie her trade's norm of anorexic chic, Jamboretz is cuter off-camera than on -- a compliment not to be taken lightly in a profession where, let's face it, looks are at least as important as brains. She is, in short, the sort of girl you'd feel equally at ease bringing home to Mom or taking to the tavern with Pop.
"There's not a more fun person to be around," says KSDK-TV (Channel 5) assignment editor Dave Keiser, who worked in the same capacity at KMOV (Channel 4) with Jamboretz before she moved to KPLR to replace former beauty queen Sandy Miller (now at Fox2) on the anchor desk. "Having a drink with Katie at Tom's in the Central West End [where Jamboretz lives] is just as much fun as being at a party with 50 people."
At KMOV, Jamboretz, then a field reporter, was an upbeat trouper whose presence was perhaps undervalued by the station.
"I don't think Katie was that appreciated at Channel 4. It was obvious to me that she had reached a point where she could have been promoted any number of times, but those opportunities were never given to her," says Keiser. "But she's one of those people who never bitched about anything."
But what of Jamboretz's move to a station whose daily half-hour of comparatively fluffy news is Play-Doh compared to the harder morning-noon-and-night content of the big three?
KMOV producer Steve Perron says, "She's the anchor of an evening newscast. That wasn't going to happen here for a long time. Her face is on billboards. That's a good thing. There are some people in this business who might say, 'Jesus, what are you going to [Channel] 11 for?' But there are plenty of people who worked at 11 who've gone on to bigger and better things. [For instance, take] Sandy Miller -- it certainly hasn't hurt her career.
"They do news just like we do news. They just have a little different approach in terms of the demographic they're trying to reach."
This different approach is evident the moment you walk into KPLR's early-afternoon editorial meeting. In a conference room a few feet from the anchor desk, the most popular story idea being bandied about is a feature on turducken -- a multibird entrée consisting of stuffing-lined turkey, chicken and duck layers (pause for dry heave here) -- and a proposed item on terrorism insurance is branded by an editor as "important but boring." It doesn't make the final cut.
In this environment, Jamboretz and Moon function as equals, pitching stories -- many already broken by national print outlets -- and giving verbal thumbs-ups or thumbs-downs along with their writers and editors. When the prospect of a piece on the now-infamous University City "eeny, meeny, miney, moe" events-calendar photo and the uproar over the rhyme's racist origin is brought up, Moon can hardly contain her venom.
"That's just PC oversensitive," she snaps.
In sharp contrast to the decapitated-chicken bustle of, say, KMOV -- which boasts roughly four times the news personnel of Channel 11 -- the afternoon hours in KPLR's command center are decidedly chill. The attire is hip and casual, with ties and logo parkas benched in favor of fly collars and knee-high leather boots.
"The deadline pressure is so different when you have newscasts every four hours or so," says Jamboretz. "Here, you can be a lot more selective."
Emanating not a drip of diva attitude between them, Jamboretz and Moon toil among the plebeians in open cubicles facing each other. Here, Jamboretz writes her own script for a piece on online shopping while Moon, charged with compiling entertainment tidbits for the broadcast's "Hotwire" segment, homes in on the closure of Britney Spears' New York restaurant Nyla and the Nicholas Cage-Lisa Marie Presley breakup as her lead items.
"I guess he wasn't weird enough," says Moon of Cage, an obvious comparison to Presley's prior marriage to Michael Jackson, which lasted considerably longer.
After filming promos -- taped lead-ins that air sporadically during the live half-hour newscast -- Jamboretz volunteers to grab takeout Thai food for the entire crew while Moon saunters down the hallway toward the weight room, one of the perks that came with the station's move from their comparatively archaic digs in the Central West End.
It is here where Moon regularly straps on a pair of boxing gloves and hits the heavy bag during breaks in her shift, a sharp contrast to her charmingly humble choirgirl demeanor. She may look like a SoCal sexpot, but, being a preacher's daughter from the South, she certainly doesn't act the part. To wit, whereas Jamboretz favors Ben Affleck, Moon confesses to being a Matt Damon-and-apple-pie kind of girl. Neither anchor is married -- FYI.
"I wouldn't trust him as far as I can throw him," Moon says of Affleck, the sort of debonair bad boy who is like romantic cocaine for women -- sensational until the inevitable letdown.
Over lunch and a hailstorm of policy-oriented inquisition at Crazy Fish in Clayton, it is obvious that Jamboretz -- a political junkie who forecasts a Rudy-Hillary war for the White House in '08 -- is the brains of the outfit, Velma to Moon's Daphne. Hence it would be easy to typecast Moon as the dumb blonde.
In reality, Moon is hardly an intellectual troglodyte. She's just not as charismatic and up-to-speed on issues as the indefatigable Jamboretz. But does it matter?
"There are people on the air in this town that I can't imagine how they ever got a job in television, but I wouldn't put Melanie in that category," says KSDK's Keiser. "I don't think personally that she comes across as the smartest person alive, but she doesn't necessarily embarrass herself.
"It was taught really to me at a very young age that it's more about looks than common sense."
Andrew Frieden, a TV meteorologist who worked with Moon in Roanoke, Virginia -- where she anchored the area's top-rated morning newscast -- says: "I don't think it [the dumb-blonde rap] is deserved at all, other than the fact that she's blonde and attractive. [NBA All-Star] Kevin Garnett is tall, so people are, like, 'Oh, he's just a tall guy' when, in reality, he's a great all-around basketball player who's worked at his craft."
When it comes to a station's making money from advertisers, what counts are the ratings. And when it comes to KPLR's target market of 18- to 34-year-old women, the station has only a slight edge during the work week, when the WB runs its strongest lineup of programs attractive to that demographic -- a 2.5 rating compared to Fox 2's 2.3.
Overall, Fox2 boasts a 6.9 rating to KPLR's 4.0, easily capturing men of all ages and older women.
This forces KPLR GM Lanesey to fight a guerilla war to maintain a grip on his targeted niche, with Moon and Jamboretz the primary weapons.
"A lot of what we do is to be as different as we can from Channel 2 [Fox2]," explains Lanesey, who acknowledges that his news operation is a break-even proposition. "They have a bigger budget to play with. The primary way to be different was with two female anchors."
Neither Fox2 nor KPLR has ratings that match either of the 10 p.m behemoths -- KMOV (12.6) and top-ranked KSDK (16.0). But the Big Two's ratings have inched downward over the last decade, says Lanesey -- and the WB's niche tailoring comes at a time when the tried-and-true evening-news broadcast of one network affiliate (ABC's KDNL, Channel 30) was canceled outright.
Being different may not be enough.
"Certainly a WB affiliate that has tried to provide some news linkage with its programming audience has a wealth of subject matter for that demographic," says Kent Collins, chairman of the University of Missouri-Columbia's broadcast-journalism department. "The question is whether they go after serious issues relating to that demographic or just infotainment in news clothing."
Some WB affiliates -- namely those in San Diego and Los Angeles -- have skewed their news content toward a younger audience. But Tom Ehlmann, Lanesey's counterpart at the WB's Houston affiliate, is not convinced that WB11's youth-first strategy is entirely viable.
"I've just felt that young people aren't news viewers," says Ehlmann, a native St. Louisan. "We're just like St. Louis -- up against a Fox station at nine o'clock. We're thinking there are news viewers out there who aren't into WB but are just looking for news at nine o'clock. So that's the essential question: Do you feel like you can recruit news viewers who are looking for an alternative?"
Others -- among them Fox2 general manager Spencer Koch -- believe that KPLR's strategy and its pretty young anchors have at least some degree of merit.
"Can they reach that audience? Probably," says Koch. "Can they be successful from a business perspective? Probably."